A priest being investigated for alleged child sex abuse was allowed to continue working, including teaching children in a public school, for eight years after the accusations were made. Only this week, when media reports about the case emerged, was he suspended from his duties.
The Vatican has now ordered the curia in question to open an investigation into possible negligence by its bishop, who is accused of failing to report abuse in accordance with church guidelines and Polish law.
The episode is the latest in a series of allegations of abuse by clergy in Poland, as well as claims that the issue has not been treated seriously by the church hierarchy or even has been covered up. Earlier this year, the pope ordered another Polish bishop accused of hiding abuse to be relieved of his duties.
In 2012, a former altar boy, named as Janusz, informed the Bishop of Łowicz, Andrzej Dziuba, that he had been sexually abused as a 13-year-old by two priests, Piotr S. and Jaroslaw W. (whose surnames are concealed under Polish law).
However, when the bishop later replied to Janusz, he indicated that, because both priests had denied the accusations, the case was closed, reports OKO.press, an investigative news outlet.
The website also writes that, six years earlier, another former altar boy, Kamil, had informed the bishop of abuse by the same two priests, including a claim that Jarosław W. had raped him as a 16-year-old. It appears no action was taken against the priests in response.
Previous evidence, published last month by OKO.press, indicated that bishops in Łowicz had known about accusations of child sex abuse by Piotr S. since the mid-1990s, but failed to take action.
— OKO.press (@oko_press) August 27, 2020
According to church regulations, bishops are obliged to alert the Vatican if they have reasonable suspicions of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy.
This process should take a matter of weeks, but the Łowicz curia reportedly did not reply to Janusz’s emails for months and the Vatican did not acknowledge the matter until 2014, two years after the initial allegations. Only in 2015 was a canonical investigation ordered, but it still remains uncompleted.
Piotr Studnicki, director of the Polish episcopate’s child protection office, says that the investigation is now in the “final stage” and “soon documents will be forwarded to the [Vatican’s] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, reports TVN24.
In the meantime, Jarosław W. was in 2016 promoted to become the parish priest for a rural village between Warsaw and Łódź.
In his role, he taught catechism classes at the local school, at the request of Bishop Dziuba. (In Poland, a majority of children attend Catholic catechism classes, which are held in and funded by the public school system but with teachers and curriculums chosen by the church.)
In 2019, Janusz notified prosecutors about the alleged abuse. Almost 40 witnesses, including Kamil and Janusz, have since given testimony. The investigation remains ongoing and Jarosław W. has not so far been charged.
Separate proceedings are also being conducted regarding the failure of Bishop Dziuba to notify prosecutors. A change to the law in 2017 made failing to report sexual offences against a minor punishable by up to three years in prison.
Throughout these developments, Jarosław W. continued to serve as a parish priest, including teaching children. In a recent meeting with Dziuba that Janusz secretly recorded, the bishop claimed that he had not received instructions from the Vatican to remove the priest from duty, reports OKO.press, which published parts of the recordings.
In actual fact, under guidelines issued by the Polish episcopate in 2015, a bishop is not only entitled to remove priests accused of sexual crimes without instructions from the Vatican, but is recommended to do so.
This is supposed to happen at the “stage of the preliminary proceedings” and continue during any subsequent formal canonical process, says Studnicki, who admits that he “cannot explain why such preventative measures were not applied in this particular case”.
At the start of this month, OKO.press attended a special mass that Jarosław W. delivered for children in years 1 to 3 of school. When the outlet sought to interview him afterwards, the priest said that there was “a witch hunt” against him.
A local man who works at the church told OKO.press that the priest “does a lot for children”, such as “organising trips” for school pupils and altar boys.
Only since OKO.press published its investigation on 6 September has Jarosław W. been stopped from teaching. This week, the provincial education board confirmed that they would no longer allow the priest to work with children, reports TVN24.
On Friday, Łowicz curia announced that it too had taken “preventative measures” against Jarosław W., including removing him from office and prohibiting him from conducting services.
It has ordered a new investigation to be made into the lengthy and so far unconcluded canonical process against Jarosław W. To ensure “transparency and impartiality”, this has been entrusted to a delegate from outside the diocese, says the curia.
The curia also revealed that, at the request of the Holy See, a separate investigation has been launched into “the possible negligence of the Bishop of Łowicz in handling cases of molestation of minors by some clergy of his diocese”.
As Poland’s Catholic church has become engulfed in controversy over its handling of child sex abuse, the Vatican has taken a growing interest in the situation.
In 2019, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, whom Pope Francis has entrusted with leading investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, visited Poland to speak about the issue with the country’s bishops.
In June this year, the pope ordered the Bishop of Kalisz, Edward Janiak, to be relieved of his duties while the Vatican investigates claims that he covered up child sex abuse. The decision followed evidence in a recent documentary that Janiak for years knew of alleged abuse by a priest, but in response simply moved him from parish to parish.
Following a string of such accusations in recent years, a recent opinion poll found that public trust in the Catholic church has declined more than for any other major institution in Poland.
In response, the Polish episcopate has sought to show that it is taking the issue seriously. It has offered support for victims and established a new new Child Protection Office to address past failings.
Last year, the head of the episcopate, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, said that he “apologised to all those who have been harmed” by priests, and expressed hope that recent painful revelations would “contribute to further compliance with the guidelines for the protection of children in the church”.
Yet Gądecki has himself faced claims that he does not take the issue seriously enough. Earlier this year, it emerged that his Poznań diocese had re-hired a former priest found guilty of sexual abuse just one month earlier in internal church proceedings.
Last year, Gądecki’s diocese planned to entomb a former archbishop accused of sexual abuse in Poznań cathedral. Only after intense criticism – including from within the church – was the burial moved to a parish cemetery.
At the Polish episcopate’s plenary meeting last month, Gądecki expressed regret that “sad cases of paedophilia and homosexuality…sometimes seem to overshadow all the good resulting from the priestly mission”.
Main image credit: Rafal Michalowski/Agencja Gazeta